© The Financial Times Ltd 2013 FT and 'Financial Times' are trademarks of The Financial Times Ltd.
September 26, 2012 4:49 pm
Russian federal investigators have charged Alexander Lebedev, the maverick Kremlin critic who owns London’s Evening Standard and the Independent newspapers, with “hooliganism ... motivated by political hatred”, a crime that carries a sentence of up to five years in jail.
The investigative committee said the former KGB agent had violated “public order” by punching fellow tycoon and erstwhile foe Sergei Polonsky during an argument on a Russian talk show last September.
Speaking to the Financial Times on Wednesday, Mr Lebedev, who also owns a stake in Aeroflot, the Russian airline, shot back against the charges and said he was being punished for his funding of opposition organisations.
Mr Lebedev is one of the only Russian oligarchs to be openly critical of the Kremlin. He is also owner of Novaya Gazeta, a hard-hitting investigative newspaper that frequently takes aim at the authorities.
He said he believed the charges had been lobbied for by law enforcement officials scrambling to respond to articles in the paper about bureaucratic embezzlement.
“Lower level officials unhappy with investigations into tens of billions of dollars stolen from the budget have reported that I’m involved with opposition funding and that I have aspirations for a political role,” he said.
“But I am no more than a citizen. The attack on my business has been going on for more than a year and now they are bringing out the heavy weapons.”
Mr Lebedev has donated funds openly to the anti-corruption efforts of Alexei Navalny, the blogger who has become an opposition leader. But Mr Lebedev said these activities, together with his financing for Novaya Gazeta, ended there, countering the idea he could have possibly helped finance the recent anti-Kremlin protests in Moscow. “I’m having enough trouble funding the newspapers,” he quipped.
The charges come amid a wider crackdown against the opposition. Mr Navalny has been accused of large-scale embezzlement while Gennady Gudkov, an opposition parliamentarian, was ejected from the state duma this month on claims of illegal business activities while in office.
On Twitter, Mr Lebedev’s son Evgeny noted that the new charges were almost identical to those against Moscow punk band Pussy Riot which was sentenced to jail for three years for hooliganism motivated by religious hatred.
While the openly critical Mr Lebedev has often appeared on the brink of a political shakedown, he has always skated through and held on to his Russian assets. His lender, National Reserve Bank, was raided by masked police commandos in 2010, but Mr Lebedev was ultimately cleared of any charges. Another months-long investigation was launched into the bank earlier this year but so far has yielded no formal allegations.
“I don’t know whether he has special safeguards or he’s just this kind of guy,” marvelled Maria Lipman, an analyst at the Carnegie Centre in Moscow.
Ms Lipman said it was too soon to say whether the new charges were different, but noted that they came a few months after Russia’s top police investigator, Alexander Bastrykin, beat up a Novaya Gazeta editor after the newspaper alleged that Mr Bastrykin had colluded with a criminal gang.
Mr Lebedev said he believed the incident with Mr Polonsky had been deliberately engineered as a pretext to punish him. His punch could not have been “motivated by political hatred” as the two men had not been discussing politics. Their argument dated back to 2007 when Mr Lebedev, then a parliamentary deputy, began investigating Mr Polonsky for corruption.
“This is the last resort to fabricate a case,” Mr Lebedev said.
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2013. You may share using our article tools.
Please don't cut articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.